Wednesday, August 15

Barbecue Mentors, Vol. 1: Henry Perry

From the sauce-stained keyboard of guest blogger Robert Moss. 

An important facet of barbecue history is the role that a few prominent cooks played as barbecue mentors, not just training a new generation of cooks but also helping to define and spread the signature style of a region.

In Kansas City, that figure was Henry Perry. Born near Memphis, Tennessee, Perry arrived in Missouri in 1907. He found work as a saloon porter, but on the side he started selling ribs from a stand in an alley off of Bank Street. At the time, the city's street corners were dotted with barbecue stands, most of them informal businesses housed in improvised structures like retired street cars.

As Perry's business grew, he became a full-time restaurateur, eventually moving into a converted trolley barn at 19th and Highland Streets and declaring himself the city's "barbecue king."

"There is only one way to cook barbecue," Perry insisted, "and that is the way I am doing it, over a wood fire, with properly constructed oven and pit." Perry taught this technique to the city's next generation of barbecue men. Charlie Bryant, for example, learned the ropes at Perry's place before setting out and opening his own stand . Charlie's brother Arthur took over in 1946 and ended up moving the operation to a new location, where, as Arthur Bryant's, it remains one of the world's best-known barbecue restaurants.

A 1915 newspaper advertisement draws the hungry masses to the Barbecue King.

Arthur Pinkard got his start working for Perry, too, and eventually built the local Gates Bar-B-Q empire with the help of business partners George and Arzelia Gates.

Perry passed on his sauce recipe to his proteges, though they adapted it over the years. "Old Man Perry and my brother used to make his sauce way too hot," Arthur Bryant remembered, and he toned it down to create his own signature version.

This informal apprenticeship system helped create the various distinctive regional barbecue styles that developed in the 20th century. If you're looking for the roots of Kansas City style, you've got to go back to Henry Perry, the original KC Barbecue King.